How Georgia O'Keeffe left her cheating husband for a mountain: 'God told me if I painted it enough, I could have it'

Georgia O'Keeffe at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico, 1968
Georgia O'Keeffe at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico, 1968 Credit: Arnold Newman/Getty Images

A new exhibition of paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe will shine a light on an odd, obsessive artist

In 1929, aged 41, Georgia O’Keeffe took a trip to New Mexico. By then, with the help of her husband, Alfred Stieglitz – an influential photographer and manager of the first modern art gallery in the United States – she had long outgrown her roots as a Wisconsin dairy farmer’s daughter, and established herself as America’s pre-eminent modernist painter.

In the years leading up to her trip, O’Keeffe had been living in the Shelton Hotel on Lexington Avenue in New York City, painting the skyscrapers she could see from her window rather than the brightly coloured (and slyly erotic) flowers for which she would later become best known. During this period, Stieglitz, 23 years senior and increasingly overbearing, had started an affair with Dorothy Norman, the beautiful young wife of an heir to the Sears, Roebuck & Co department store fortune – and O’Keeffe had found out.

Appalled at the prospect of spending the summer as usual surrounded by her husband’s family in upstate New York, O’Keeffe instead set off by train for Santa Fe. She was accompanied by her friend Rebecca “Beck” Strand, wife of the modernist photographer Paul.

Cottonwoods (c.1952) by Georgia O'Keeffe Credit: Georgia O'Keeffe Museum

The two women were met there by the wealthy arts patron Mabel Dodge Luhan, who persuaded them to travel with her to the desert town of Taos, 70 miles north. Luhan had been badgering O’Keeffe to visit New Mexico for years and, anticipating her friend’s arrival the previous month, had written to her Jungian psychiatrist in triumph: “O’Keeffe is coming out in May. Finally, someone will paint the country.”

And, boy, did she – so much so, in fact, that this area of New Mexico is now known, colloquially, as “O’Keeffe Country”. The artist ended up staying with Luhan for five months, before settling permanently in the region for the final 37 years of her life.

Initially, perhaps, her love for the west was tied up with a sense of liberation from Stieglitz – there is speculation that O’Keeffe had affairs with both “Beck” and Mabel that summer of 1929. Above all, though, it was New Mexico’s harsh, awe-inspiring landscape that she found so thrilling. She would return to New Mexico in 1930 and again in 1931, when she became fascinated with the sandblasted cattle bones that she encountered in the desert. She sent a barrel of them back to New York, where she painted them the following winter.

Winter Road by Georgia O'Keeffe Credit: National Gallery of Art, Washington / Georgia O'Keeffe Museum/Tate Modern

A major retrospective of O’Keeffe’s work that opens at Tate Modern next month will include several pictures of these bones, burnished by the wind and bleached by the sun. O’Keeffe long aspired to make, as she put it, “the Great American Painting” and this series is often interpreted as her response to the Great Depression.

In 1934, O’Keeffe discovered Ghost Ranch, an isolated “dude ranch” to the west of Taos, set up for the entertainment of wealthy East Coast holidaymakers such as the Rockefellers. O’Keeffe, however, kept clear of the tourists, with their butlers and bodyguards, and spent her days in remote parts of the ranch, painting its sandstone rock formations.

In 1940, she bought a house at Ghost Ranch and added large plate-glass windows to its adobe walls, so that she could enjoy views of the parched red landscape from her bed. In the distance she could see Pedernal Mountain, a flat-topped mesa almost 9,865ft high. As Mont Sainte-Victoire was to Cezanne, so Pedernal was to O’Keeffe, who painted it, obsessively, almost 30 times. “It’s my private mountain,” she once said. “It belongs to me. God told me if I painted it enough, I could have it.”